Stimulus from the World of Wine

Close up of The Thinker

We recent­ly asked peo­ple to rec­om­mend books which weren’t about beer but which could help us bet­ter under­stand beer, prompt­ed by reminders from Knut and Alan that books on oth­er top­ics do actu­al­ly exist and can be all the more illu­mi­nat­ing for their dis­tance from The Obses­sion.

Gareth, who writes the Beer Advice blog, and has a back­ground in wine retail­ing, sug­gest­ed Ques­tions of Taste: the Phi­los­o­phy of Wine (Ed. Bar­ry C. Smith, 2007), a col­lec­tion of essays explor­ing what it real­ly means to ‘taste’ wine. Is it pos­si­ble to taste objec­tive­ly? Which qual­i­ties are an essen­tial part of the wine and which are pro­ject­ed by the taster? Are some wines real­ly bet­ter than oth­ers in an objec­tive sense? And so on.

If you’re aller­gic to the mer­est whiff of pre­ten­sion, you won’t enjoy it, but, so far, like John­ny Five in search of input, we’re find­ing it very thought-pro­vok­ing, and are already itch­ing to write posts based on ideas there­in.

Here’s one exam­ple from the essay ‘The Pow­er of Tastes: Rec­on­cil­ing Sci­ence and Sub­jec­tiv­i­ty’ by Ophe­lia Deroy:

Am I objec­tive when I say that this wine tastes like ripe pineap­ple, or do I just indulge in asso­ci­a­tion of mem­o­ries, con­demned to remain pure­ly per­son­al? Do I try to find rare tastes or fine adjec­tives to con­form to a social rit­u­al, in an arbi­trary and per­haps pre­ten­tious way? But, even if social­ly cod­i­fied, do these prac­tices and ways of talk­ing about wine trans­form the expe­ri­ence we have of it?

This set of all kinds of fire­works in our brains. We’ve cer­tain­ly found our­selves think­ing: “We can’t just call this beer hop­py – peo­ple won’t approve,” and so sipped, sniffed, strug­gled, try­ing to unlock a par­tic­u­lar elu­sive aro­ma or flavour; and we recent­ly saw a novice beer review­er (one with a provoca­tive sense of hubris) shot down for the lack of finesse in his tast­ing notes – for not going deep enough.

What if those elu­sive flavours just aren’t there? Or the label we’re putting on them only makes sense to us because we’re recall­ing a par­tic­u­lar man­go, of a par­tic­u­lar vari­ety, at a spe­cif­ic point of ripeness, that we ate at a par­tic­u­lar time in a par­tic­u­lar place?

Oth­er rec­om­men­da­tions – the fur­ther removed from beer the bet­ter – very wel­come! Pic­ture from Flickr Cre­ative Com­mons.

It’s not only beer

In this arti­cle, amongst many excel­lent points, Pete Brown sug­gests that the fuss over the Oxford Com­pan­ion to Beer high­lights a lack of per­spec­tive on the part of some beer geeks, blog­gers and writ­ers. He says that, some­times, people’s atti­tudes make him want to say: “Guys, get a grip – it’s only beer.”

But is it only beer?

We’ve writ­ten on a relat­ed sub­ject before, point­ing out that, as hob­by­ists, we know it’s just beer, but that tak­ing it seri­ous­ly is all part of the fun.

Telling real his­to­ri­ans and schol­ars like Mar­tyn Cor­nell and Ron Pat­tin­son, how­ev­er, that it’s only beer is like telling an archae­ol­o­gist that the sub­ject of his study is ‘just a load of mud­dy rub­ble’ and that he should stop being so anal about it. Yes, most spe­cial­ist schol­ars have lost per­spec­tive, and thank God for that.

It’s through the efforts of peo­ple who take appar­ent­ly insignif­i­cant things seri­ous­ly, and spend time doing the kinds of back-break­ing research oth­ers can’t be both­ered with, that we learn more about our world and our his­to­ry.

Beer is wor­thy of seri­ous study and we should applaud those who under­take it, how­ev­er nuts their obses­sion might some­times seem to the rest of us.

P.S. We real­ly don’t like wine very much. No pre­tend­ing here.

Oxford Companion: Good, not Perfect

Detail of text from the Oxford Companion to Beer

We like The Oxford Com­pan­ion to Beer (ed. Gar­rett Oliv­er) a lot more than we were expect­ing to and, although far from per­fect, it cer­tain­ly beats any oth­er catch-all on the mar­ket.

So, let’s get the big flaws out of the way. First, entries dif­fer wild­ly in tone of voice and occa­sion­al­ly con­tra­dict each oth­er. Wikipedi­ans would describe some as “not ency­lo­pe­dic in tone”. But then, each entry is attrib­uted, and this is point­ed­ly not an ency­lo­pe­dia with a cap­i­tal E – it’s a ‘Com­pan­ion’, sug­gest­ing some­thing less for­mal.

Sec­ond­ly, every tenth entry is writ­ten through the weird prism of Amer­i­can home brew­ing cul­ture, with phras­es like “true to style” and “Ger­man ale” occur­ing in pieces which stri­dent­ly expound very shaky his­to­ry, cit­ing less than cred­i­ble sources. But then crit­i­cal read­ers (like wot we are) will spot these entries a mile off and take them with a pinch of salt. They don’t ruin the whole book.

Final­ly, on the sub­ject of sources, there are too few pri­ma­ry sources cit­ed, and many instances where one con­trib­u­tor cites anoth­er contributor’s book as the source for an entry. Cliquey-ness? Lazi­ness? Pri­ma­ry sources inspire a great deal of con­fi­dence in a read­er and any seri­ous attempt at his­to­ry should use them.

Hav­ing said all of that, those flaws and a few oth­ers do not mean there isn’t a great deal to enjoy.

The more tech­ni­cal entries cov­er­ing con­tem­po­rary brew­ing prac­tices, hop and bar­ley vari­eties and chem­i­cal process­es are fas­ci­nat­ing and (to us at least) seem well sourced and cred­i­ble. Every time we pick it up, we learn some­thing new, and feel inspired to read more else­where.

A few years ago, when we want­ed to buy a friend a primer on beer, the best we could find was the Eye­wit­ness Guide edit­ed by the late Michael Jack­son. Although the Oxford Com­pan­ion is expen­sive, it is now the best book to buy any­one want­i­ng to get a good overview – or at least to begin to appre­ci­ate the com­plex­i­ty and depth – of the world of beer.

If noth­ing else, it will hope­ful­ly spur oth­ers on to pro­duce sim­i­lar, big­ger, bet­ter books. With apolo­gies to those who have worked hard writ­ing them, we don’t need any more vari­a­tions on 750 Beers to Try Before You Need Your Stom­ach Pumped, where porno­graph­ic pic­tures of beer are accom­pa­nied by tast­ing notes.

Note: we got a free review copy from Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Things have changed


Egon Ronay’s 1990 guide to pub and bar food is a fas­ci­nat­ing read, hav­ing become some­thing of a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment.

For each pub he includes, he lists the beer avail­able, and many of the brands have now dis­ap­peared: Ind Coope, Wat­neys, Char­ring­ton, Usher’s and Eldridge Pope crop up repeat­ed­ly.  And what­ev­er hap­pened to Fuller’s K2 lager?

One the whole, things seemt to have improved. Even the best pubs in the 1990 edi­tion seem to be there large­ly because they offered two real ales rather than one, and there was a lot of Webster’s York­shire Bit­ter on offer. The White Horse was rat­ed as the best pub in Lon­don but, by cur­rent stan­dards, sounds pret­ty run-of-the-mill.

But this pas­sage from the intro­duc­tion still rings true:

Have you ever walked into a pub full of peo­ple and imme­di­ate­ly felt total­ly iso­lat­ed? This can hap­pen when most of the clien­tele already know each oth­er and may have unwit­ting­ly sat in old Joe’s favourite chair by the fire. Fine if you are a mem­ber of the ‘club’ but not so pleas­ant if you are a stranger… On their trav­els, our inspec­tors are invari­ably strangers and gauge a pub on how well they are received and looked after as such. There is no point in rec­om­mend­ing an oth­er­wise love­ly old inn some­where in the wilds if vis­i­tors to the area are not going to feel wel­come once inside.

The Good Bierkeller Guide


There are quite a few guides in Ger­man aimed at peo­ple who like beer gar­dens, but we think we’ve found the best.

Frankens Schoen­ste Bierkeller and Bier­garten by Markus Rau­pach and Bas­t­ian Böt­tner is a weighty but hand­i­ly sized guide to the most attrac­tive gar­dens and pubs in Fran­co­nia. Even though our Ger­man is rudi­men­ta­ry, we found it easy to fol­low. For each city, town and vil­lage in Fran­co­nia, it sug­gests between two and twen­ty decent places to drink. It lists the beers on offer; gives details of how to to get to each booz­er on pub­lic trans­port; and offers spe­cial tips for each one (Excel­lent aspara­gus menu in sea­son! Par­tic­u­lar­ly nice dunkel! Won­der­ful panoram­ic views from the ter­race! And so on).

If you’re a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to Fran­co­nia, we’d say it’s a must, and a bar­gain at €16.95.

And its end­less pho­tos of green, sun­lit beer gar­dens aren’t a bad way to cheer your­self up after a jour­ney home from work in the rain, either.